Inauguration Day: When Sinclair Lewis Imagined The Launch Of A Populist-Style Dictatorship.

By James Bandler

Well, at least that’s over.

Inauguration Day has come and gone, and the President’s speech was far from reassuring.  I’m left with lots of questions: How strong is this Republic really? Will our system of checks and balances, our civil society, be robust enough to protect immigrants, racial and religious minorities and women? How much will life change in this bluest of blue states, Vermont?

Most importantly, what can be done?

Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis confronted similar questions in his 1935 bestseller, It Can’t Happen Here. That novel imagined the rise of a populist demagogue to the nation’s highest office.

Lewis’ arch-villain, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, campaigns on a platform of protectionism and nationalism while stirring up resentment against minorities. Vowing to “make America a proud, rich land again,” Windrip claims that “only he” can break the hold of the elites, the “grasping bankers,”and the corrupt politicians who rule Washington.

Windrip’s “Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men” is a peculiar mishmash. His program calls for the return of all working women –with the exception of nurses and beauty parlor stylists — to “their incomparably sacred duties as homemakers and as mothers.” His plan prohibits Jews who don’t swear an oath of allegiance on the New Testament from holding public office. It bans black people from voting, or practicing law or medicine. At the same time, the plan promises to nationalize finance, mines, oil fields and communication. The American people love it.

After his inauguration, Windrip turns the nation into a prison. An Underground revolutionary movement flares. The only safe haven is Canada.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve become obsessed with the story of the creation of Lewis’ book, which he banged out in a feverish, four-month frenzy at Twin Farms, his sanctuary in Barnard, Vermont.

Just to be clear, it is not the purpose of this column to equate a fictional tyrant with America’s new president –though that comparison was made long before the election by  Jacob Weisberg in the Financial Times and Slate, and then in a post-election missive by Bevis Longstreth in the Huffington Post.

I will say here and for the record, those comparisons are hugely off-base and totally unfair. Dishonest liberal media!

The two men don’t even look alike! Windrip, a Democrat, is described by Lewis as “almost a dwarf, yet with an enormous head, a bloodhound head of huge ears, pendulous cheeks, mournful eyes.” His past, “selling bogus medicine” was raffish, but he’d moved on “to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing on an indoor platform under mercury-filled vapor lights.”

Wrote Lewis: He “was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture…He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth…and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts—figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

The new commander-in-chief,  by contrast, is the very definition of the American success story. He is continually setting the standards of excellence while expanding his interests in real estate, sports and entertainment. Not to mention,  bottled water, artisan crafted red baseball caps, a superb university, magazine publishing, beauty pagents and steaks. What’s more, he is a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance (better than an MBA). An accomplished author, he has authored over fifteen bestsellers, and his first book, The Art of the Deal, is considered a business classic and one of the most successful business books of all time!

And he’s modest, too.

In addition,  our new leader has perfectly-proportioned fingers and beautifully-sized hands.

See?donald-trump-small-hands1

Oops, wrong photo.

I meant this one:.

finger

To  create his villainous anti-hero, Lewis drew on the backgrounds of several  of America’s most prominent extremists,  including Louisiana populist Huey Long, and William Dudley Pelley, the founder of the secretive American fascistic movement, the Silver Shirts.

pelley

Mostly, though Windrip was an American stand-in for The Great Dictator himself, Adolf Hitler.

It Can’t Happen Here was heavily influenced by reporting of Lewis’ wife, Dorothy Thompson. As a Berlin-based foreign correspondent, Thompson was one of the first Americans to sound the alarm about the menace of Nazism.

dorothyred

Cover Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis by Vincent Sheean

Thompson interviewed Hitler in 1931. Like many who met Hitler, she came away from the encounter underwhelmed. She described Hitler as “inconsequent, and voluable, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man.”

Later, Thompson was criticized for underestimating Hitler. The harping was  unfair. From the beginning, Thompson understood that The Nazi Party’s great strength lay not in Hitler’s own character, but in his army of millions of “Little Men.” Nazism, she understood, was a true mass movement of peasants, butchers, shopkeepers and minor functionaries. These men and women felt neglected and forgotten by German elites, and they were stirred by the Nazis’ promise of a greater “Germany for Germans!” But what galvanized these Germans most, Thompson understood, was the Nazi Party’s Antisemitism. This hatred of Jews, Thompson correctly observed, was the glue that held Nazism together.

Over the next decade, as Thompson’s biographer, Peter Kurth observed, “there was no one in journalism, anywhere in the world, who spoke louder than Dorothy in the fight against nazism.”

On January 30, 1933, Hitler assumed the chancellorship, legally and fairly. Soon after that, Thompson reported, “The entire opposition press was muzzled, and for much of the time suppressed. The chancellor’s private army, the S.A. troops and their picked division, the black-breeched SS men, broke up opposition meetings, terrorized the streets, staged rows,” beat up Social Democratic deputies…”

In 1934, Hitler personally ordered the expulsion of Thompson from Germany. She was the first American reporter to be booted. She arrived back in the United States a hero, and she would spend the next ten years writing, touring, lecturing and giving radio addresses about the threat of extremism to the world order.

“No people ever recognize their dictator in advance,” Thompson wrote. “He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship..When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys and he will stand for everything traditionally American…And nobody will ever say ‘Heil’ to him, or ‘Ave Casear’ nor will they call him ‘Fuehrer’ or ‘Duce’ But they will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of ‘O.K., Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaaay!”

“It could happen here, Dorothy warned, and it would happen if Americans were not careful,” her biographer Peter Kurth wrote in American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson.

At their 300-acre Barnard farm, where Thompson held court, Lewis found his wife’s growing celebrity grating. Before her eviction from Berlin, the wife of the Nobel Laureate  had been best known as “Mrs. Lewis.” Now, she was practically a Senator. If their marriage dissolved, the culprit, he decided would be Hitler. Yet for all his dismay at being eclipsed, Lewis absorbed all of Thompson’s reporting and thinking.

His creation of a fictional dictator who was as American and palatable as apple pie was straight from Dorothy. Her insights about the banality of modern tyrants gave It Can’t Happen Here its shocking punch.

Indeed, right up to Buzz Windrip’s Inauguration, Lewis’ novel reads less like tragedy than farce.

Windrip’s cabinet is a motley. The  newly-created Secretary of Education position is awarded to, well, a former surgeon.  The Secretary of Treasury is a former banker, whose claim to fame was an acquittal for income-tax fraud. The most powerful man in the administration is Windrip’s personal secretary. This shadowy — I won’t say Bannonesque  — figure, Lee Sarason, is a “drooping” man with “thick lips” who had been variously a socialist and an anarchist and who now “believed only in resolute control by a small oligarchy.” He controls Windrip’s militia, The Minute Men, who are modeled after the German Brownshirts, the S.A.

In spite of the fear of protests Buzz’s inauguration is pulled off with only a few hitches. Outgoing President, Franklin Roosevelt declines to attend. The most disconcerting aspect of the day is the march of the Minute Men, clad in trench helmets of polished silver.TE INAUGURALPG 058

It only takes a few days for Windrip to consolidate power. The Minute Men are recognized as an official auxiliary of the Army and are issued automatic pistols, machine guns and bayonets. Protests are put down murderously. Four Supreme Court Justices resign under pressure. One hundred Congressmen are imprisoned.

Windrip detests the White House, which he suspects is infiltrated by communists and other plotters. Unbeknownst to the public, he takes up residence a 12-room suite on the tenth floor of a hotel tower.

Here, in this sterile apartment, which looks like a combination of office and hotel lobby, Buzz  feels safe, with his creature comforts — his red morocco slippers, red suspenders and baby-blue steel garters. The amenities include “a large liquor closet and another closet with thirty-seven suits of clothes, and a bathroom with jars and jars of the pine-flavored  bath salts.”

The rooms in the suite, Lewis wrote, are “filled night and day with guards. To get through to Buzz in this intimate place of his own was very much like visiting a police station for the purposes of seeing a homicidal prisoner.”

Soon, the entire nation feels like a prison. The Upper Valley is no haven. The federal system of government is abolished under the Windrip regime. Vermont is erased as a state. A Rutland Herald editor is arrested without charges. People disappear in the night.

Hanover, NH is an armed camp. “On the long porch of the Hanover Inn, officers of the Minute Men were reclining in deck chairs, their spurred boots up on the railing,” Lewis wrote. Students are chased from Dartmouth College;  laboratories are smashed. The college is converted into a torture center. The only safe place for dissidents is Canada.

hanoverinn2

Hanover Inn, 1920s or 1930s.

I confess to identifying with the plight of the book’s main protagonist, Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor whose career path, like mine takes him from the Rutland Herald to the Boston Globe and then back to Vermont.

The Windrip regime is brutal to  Jessup. First come death threats, then a mob destroys his thirty-four-volume edition of Dickens because the author did “a lot of complaining about conditions — about schools and the police and everything.” This indignity is followed by his own arrest, imprisonment, torture, and the execution of his son-in-law. Over the course of these trials, Jessup must confront his own blind-spots: elitism, hypocrisy and cowardice.

“The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work,” Jessup realizes. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy minded Doremus Jessups, who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

snow

This inaugural evening, with a thin blanket of snow covering the Upper Valley, I can almost picture, red-haired Lewis hunkered down at his his beloved refuge, Twin Farms in Barnard, which is just 22 miles from my home in Norwich.

The Great Depression is roaring, extremists are rising, and he knows he doesn’t have much time. He’s hunched over his typewriter and muttering. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup!” He rips the page from his typewriter, pockmarked face flushed from shame and bourbon.

sinclair-lewis

Jessup was Lewis. The Nobel Prize winner made no bones about the fact that the  fictional Vermont editor was his alter-ego. Like Jessup, Lewis was exceedingly hard on himself. After the book was complete, Lewis confessed to friends that It Can’t Happen Here was a complete failure as a work of literature.

But as  work of propaganda, the book more than did the job, selling some 320,000 copies. Critics hailed it as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of its day. A dramatic version for the stage opened in 18 cities. There’s little doubt that Lewis played a significant role in turning back the Fascist tide — at least in the United States.itcant2

Still, the subject matter was too hot for Hollywood. MGM commissioned a script and lined up actors, including Lionel Barrymore as Jessup. But then, just as cameras were about to roll, the studio killed production, “citing high costs.” Lewis told a different story;  The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, he claimed, stopped the movie because it did not want to create an international incident. The Nazis cheered. A German film official said that “if the film had contained any slurs on National Socialism, we would have protested immediately.. It is very friendly of America to halt such a film.”

As for Lewis, his marriage to Thompson soon dissolved. Thompson went on, amid growing celebrity, be one of the most ardent backers of the war against fascism. Lewis died of alcoholism in 1951.He was 65-years old. Their farm is now a lovely luxury resort. But with rooms costing up to $3,000 a night, it accessible only to the richest of the rich.

As I mentioned above, the last year has seen a revival of interest in Lewis’ book, which continues to sell  briskly on Amazon.com. That’s a good thing. And it is a good thing that purchasing the  book is still just a commercial transaction — one that does not rise to an act of civil disobedience. Yet.

I can’t help but wonder, however, if the outcome on November 8th, might have been different had more people read this novel before the election.

Probably not.

By the same token, on the eve of this inauguration, I believe that the book’s overriding message, its plea for humanity and openness, is one that most Americans could rally behind.

“’More and more, as I think about history,’ (Jessup) pondered, ‘I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.'”

Good luck and goodnight.

**********************************************************************

(My thanks to Bevis Longstreth who chided me for not mentioning Lewis’ book in my last blog post. I’ve also borrowed heavily and shamelessly from contemporaneous news articles, and from Gary Scharnhorst’s excellent afterward to “It Can’t Happen Here.” Huge thanks also to the brilliant biography of Lewis’ wife by Peter Kurth, American Cassandra:The Life of Dorothy Thompson. Last, a special call-out to my old Rutland Herald cube-mate, Yvonne Daley, who pointed me to Thompson’s courageous journalism decades ago.)

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About civilvermont

I'm a recovering Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine reporter based in Vermont. I enjoy hiking and swimming in very cold water.